Karen Schoemer – “Skip Spence: A Fragile Mind Bent in a Psychedelic Era” (1999)

May 9, 2014 at 8:40 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

An article on the late Alexander “Skip” Spence, taken from The New York Times, July 4, 1999…

Like Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident or the sandbox Brian Wilson built in his living room, Alexander (Skip) Spence’s freakout is the stuff of rock myth. In 1968, Spence, a guitarist for the San Francisco pop-psychedelic band Moby Grape, was in New York working on the group’s second album. He hooked up with a woman who was known as a witch, and she gave him bad acid. Spence disappeared for a few days, and when he turned up again he was banging down the hotel room door of the band’s drummer with a fire ax. The drummer wasn’t there, so Spence proceeded to the recording studio in a taxi, ax still in hand. At the studio someone wrestled the ax away from him, but charges were pressed and Spence went to jail. He was given a choice: prison or a psychiatric hospital. He chose Bellevue, and he was there, doing penance, for six months.Spence, who died in April at the age of 52, was well on his way to being another 60’s casualty. But before he got there, he took a side trip. Upon his release from Bellevue, he asked his label, Columbia, for a small advance – under $1,000 – and a motorcycle so he could drive to Nashville and make a solo album. In just four days in December 1968, Spence recorded Oar, an album of songs he had written in Bellevue. He produced it himself and played all the instruments himself. When he was done, he got on his motorcycle and headed back to California. He was 22 years old.

Released on May 19, 1969, Oar showed one of the bleakest undersides of the 60’s. It was a snapshot of mental illness, a portrait of bitter isolation in a time of communal celebration. Not surprisingly, Oar sold only a few hundred copies. Columbia didn’t promote it; it got no airplay, cracked no chart. A few months later, the critic Greil Marcus wrote a prescient review for Rolling Stone. ”This unique LP is bound to be forgotten,” he said. ”Get ahead of the game and buy Oar before you no longer have a chance.” It was the perfect curse to lay on Oar. Mr. Marcus knew that in rock-and-roll, nothing worthwhile is ever truly forgotten. The harder it is to find, the more it is coveted. Oar was bound for a particular cult doom: an album so obscure and neglected that it could eventually be embraced by a different generation as something exceptional and brand new.

Thirty years later, it’s finally Oar‘s time. On Tuesday, Sundazed Music will reissue a remixed and remastered version of the album with 10 bonus tracks. That same day, the independent label Birdman will release More Oar, a lovingly compiled tribute featuring Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Beck and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar recreating the album’s songs in order. Tribute records are often obnoxious celebrity showcases, but More Oar is the rare case that really enhances the original. Bill Bentley, a longtime record-company executive and the album’s producer, made sure that only performers who really cared about Oar contributed.

”Once word went out that I was doing this, people started contacting me,” Mr. Bentley said. ”Bands said, ‘We love Oar. We have to be on this.’ We’d send people $500, and a few weeks later these DAT tapes would show up in the mail. It was great.”

The two albums work well in tandem. Each brings out strengths the other doesn’t show. Because of his fragility of mind, Spence’s version is hushed and tentative. The songs are like hot, cramped rooms, full of wandering thoughts and fragmented images. The vocals rasp and quaver; the drums shuffle in a halting, folksy rhythm. It’s the sound of a man talking to himself. Some songs are nearly formless psychedelic workouts; others, like ”Cripple Creek” and ”Diana,” are muttered depictions of characters at the end of their ropes. Oar also has moments of joy: Spence relished childish singsongs and eccentric wordplay. ”An Olympic super swimmer whose belly doesn’t flop,” he sings in ”Broken Heart.’ ”A honey-dripping hipster whose bee cannot be bopped.”

More Oar sacrifices the singular, mind-bending intimacy, but it’s more confident and accessible. In the hands of accomplished pros like Beck and Mr. Plant, the songs get room to breathe; the best interpretations reveal elegant structures and breathtaking melodies that Spence himself muffled. Spence’s version of ”All Come to Meet Her” feels like a pretty, half-finished thought; he hums and repeats the title line over and over, like a daydreamer musing on a place he’ll never reach. Diesel Park West’s cover brings out the pop brilliance at the song’s core. The drums crash, the electric guitars ring out; it’s nothing short of celestial, a hymn of fulfilled longing. A transcendence Spence could only imagine Diesel Park West brings to life.

Mr. Bentley is one of the faithful who bought the record in 1969. ”I didn’t have those kind of mental problems, but I wasn’t doing too well,” he said. ”You listen to this and you go, well, there’s people farther out and with bigger troubles than me, and they’re still making art. Maybe there is a way to get through all this, and not just run and give up.”

For Mr. Bentley, More Oar was a way to make sure Spence’s work wasn’t forgotten. When he began work on the project four years ago, he found that many musicians had been moved by Oar just as he had been. ” ‘Books of Moses’ reminded me of a Tom Waits song before there was a Tom Waits,” Mr. Bentley said. ”I thought, ‘I’ll just ask him.’ He just said, ‘Sure.’ He cut it in his garage, played all the instruments himself. He’s a guy that really taps into the mental space that a guy like Skip lived in. I think that’s part of Tom’s allure. He always, from the start, got inside the head of the have-nots and society’s expendables.”

What makes Oar and More Oar so compelling is that both records puncture many of the myths we’ve come to take for granted about the 60’s. No other decade in rock has been so overhyped. From Dylan’s plug-ins to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar burnings, from the Beatles at Shea to Janis Joplin at Monterey, from Eric Clapton’s solos to the Grateful Dead’s endless jams, the era is stuffed way past capacity with icons, masterminds, earth-shakers and ground-breakers. The last thing anyone needs is another 60’s legend.

Spence was the antithesis of 60’s heroism. He was of the era but apart from it. He came from the Haight-Ashbury scene, but he did his best work in solitude. Unlike Brian Wilson, whose mental instability became part of his mystique, Spence never parlayed his illness into money or fame. ”Skippy was not really in shape after ’68 to ever come back and pick up where he left off,” said Peter Lewis, a Moby Grape guitarist. ”He couldn’t be a show-business person. All that talent wasn’t something he could pull out of his hip pocket and use.”

Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario, then moved with his parents to the San Jose area. He migrated to San Francisco in time to spend a year as the Jefferson Airplane’s original drummer. In 1966, he helped start Moby Grape, a slightly more garagey version of Buffalo Springfield, with rustic three- and four-part harmonies overlaid on snarly guitars. Moby Grape’s closest thing to a hit was Spence’s ”Omaha,” an exuberant call-out to good times. ”Listen my friends!” the song exclaims again and again.

”There’s no way to describe the way he plays guitar, and the way his chords work,” said Mr. Lewis. ”Him and the guitar, it was like a whole orchestra. The way the melody moved and the chords moved was totally unpredictable but totally cool. Nobody else could do it. It’s Skip.”

After Oar, Spence worked sporadically with Moby Grape. He contributed to the 1971 album 20 Granite Creek and to Live Grape in 1978. But in between, Spence, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, began a cycle of living in halfway houses and state mental institutions. One time in the late 70’s, Spence wound up in a facility in Santa Cruz. ”They called us three days or so after they had committed him,” Mr. Lewis remembered. ”They said, ‘You’ve got to take this guy out of here because he got lost and we found him in the women’s ward with a harem.’ ” Another time, Mr. Lewis added, he suffered a drug overdose. ”They took him to the morgue, tag on his toe and everything. And he got up and asked for a glass of water.”

Still, Spence was well enough during the late 70’s to play gigs with Moby Grape in northern California. Scott McCaughey, whose band the Minus 5 contributed to More Oar, saw a few of them. ”Skip would sometimes be there, sometimes play, sometimes be there and not play,” Mr. McCaughey recalled. One night after a show, Mr. McCaughey approached Spence. ”He was kind of ambling about,” he said. ”My friends and I said, ‘Do you want to come over to our house and have a beer?’ He was like, ‘O.K.’ So he came over and sat in the middle of our funky living room. I said, ‘Skip, what do you want to listen to?’ He said, ‘Rubber Soul.’ So I got it, and we listened to it, smoked some pot and just kind of talked. He was friendly but not super on the ball. You definitely got the impression he wasn’t all there. After the record was over, I said, ‘So, what do you want to listen to now?’ He said, ‘Rubber Soul.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s listen to it again.’ It was like it never happened. So we listened to Rubber Soul again.”

After Live Grape, Mr. Lewis lost track of Spence until the early 90’s. Mr. Bentley said that Spence was never homeless, but that ”he would panhandle money and drink quarts of beer all day.” Around 1994, his life stabilized. He moved into a trailer with his girlfriend and apparently quit drinking. Spence played one last gig with Moby Grape in Santa Cruz in 1996. In the spring of this year, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and hospitalized.

Mr. Bentley had spent the last few years of his life pursuing Spence’s elusive legacy. He went to see him in the hospital and brought a copy of More Oar. But Spence was in a coma by then. On the day he died, April 16, Spence was surrounded by loved ones: his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his children, Mr. Lewis. They took him off his ventilator and played More Oar as he slipped away.

Peter Lewis sees his legacy in a slightly different way. ”The thing that made Skip suffer in the end was he knew everybody loved him, but he couldn’t come back,” he said. ”People had expectations for him to be well again and play music, and he just couldn’t. I admire him as an artist and a human being, even though he was just a guy you’d pass by in the street, just another bum with a cup in his hands. But I guarantee you, he will become the Van Gogh of the 60’s. This guy was peerless.”

Karen Schoemer

http://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/04/arts/music-a-fragile-mind-bent-in-a-psychedelic-era.html

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